Artist To Watch: Yohuna
Johanne Swanson has lived in many places, but hasn’t felt particularly at home in any of them. She started making music as Yohuna six years ago while on a year-long exchange program in New Mexico, a long ways away from where she grew up in Wisconsin. “I wanted to be in a radically different environment,” she recalls. “It was the first place I lived where I didn’t know anyone.” That isolation led her to the internet and an old Casio keyboard, both of which she used as a means to connect to the rest of the world. She blogged about music and engaged with a burgeoning online community that extended to the bedroom pop label Orchid Tapes; she put out 2011’s Revery EP, a collection of introverted songs that derive just as much power from their dreamy atmospherics as they do from Swanson’s languishing, yearning lyrics.
Since then, her output as a musician has been sporadic — a compilation contribution here, a one-off or split there. During that time, Swanson was jumping restlessly from place to place. After New Mexico, she went to Los Angeles, then back home to Eau Claire to finish school; that was followed by Boston and a two-month backpacking trip through Europe, where she eventually settled down in Berlin for nearly two years. It was there that she started to come into her own: “Being surrounded by my non-native language really grounded me in what I wanted and didn’t want, what I believed in and didn’t believe in,” she explains. “I wasn’t having a lot of external messages I could access, so I turned inward. After all of those experiences, I feel like I could live just about anywhere and be happy as a person.”
That resolute sense of self was hard-earned, and it comes across in her music. Typically, we associate moving around with stress, nerves, constant upheaval. Swanson is an anxious person, but she uses her songs to create tranquility; there’s a peacefulness about them, a port-in-a-storm quality. “I’m not patient,” she says. “That’s why I moved around so much, and that’s why I never put out a record.” It’s where her debut album’s title, Patientness, comes into play: the made-up word is a goal, not an attribute you can have. It’s something to strive towards, but it’s unrealistic and untenable. It’s just not how we as humans are set up to function.
Last fall, Swanson moved to New York City and into the Silent Barn, a Brooklyn-based venue and artist residency. Soon after she arrived, however, the apartment she was staying in caught fire, and she was displaced for two months. It took that tragic event to jolt Swanson into action. Before, she had been meandering between two modes: the life of an artist versus the life of a realist. “It was too much negotiating that I had to do with these two selves,” she says. “I always found that I had to do too much compromising with this other self, and I started to realize I was doing myself a disservice by not pursuing this project I had put so much of my time into.” After the fire, she committed to recording a full-length. Whereas before she had adopted a transient lifestyle by choice, she was now forced into one by circumstance, and it made her end goal that much clearer.
“New York has a funny way of pushing you,” she says. “It really asks you to narrow your desires and focus on one thing.” She also found a greater spirit of collaboration in the city than she had in Berlin, which was more solitary and based around electronic music. “Even though my songs are really personal, I’ve always been someone who draws from collaborative experiences.” The primary collaborator on Patientness is Swanson’s long-time friend Adelyn Strei (she puts out music as Adelyn Rose), who plays guitar and sings on the album.
Together, Swanson and Strei made their way up to Montréal last November to record with Owen Pallett at his studio. “He knows exactly what to do and has this amazing intuition,” Swanson says of working with Pallett, who co-produced the album. “I didn’t ever have to stretch to convey how I wanted something to sound on the record because he knew exactly what I wanted. It sounds exactly like how it’s supposed to sound.” Additional contributors include Florist’s Emily Sprague and Told Slant’s Felix Walworth, who played mellotron and drums respectively.
The long gestation period that resulted in Patientness feels appropriate. So much of the album is about learning to take your time with things, finding solace within yourself rather than basing your happiness on the expectations of others. The album’s lead single, “Apart” (which you can listen to above), originally appeared as a demo on The Le Sigh’s first compilation, and its final form exhibits a sonic progression and maturation that’s well worth the wait. The song is about longing and desire, and ineffectively trying to fill up an emotional distance with your own thoughts. “I don’t need anything to remember you by,” Swanson sings in the last lines. “Just enough time/ To think it’s the last time.” But that’s the catch-22 with time: It’s something you need immediately, but the only thing you can do is wait it out until, one day, the dull aching subsides into something more manageable. In other words: you need Patientness.